Polygraphs for Border Patrol applicants seen as hurdle to hiring rush

Union officials and lawmakers are questioning the usefulness of polygraphs – lie-detector tests – for Border Patrol applicants. But others say the tests are needed more than ever as Customs and Border Patrol prepares for a hiring binge. (Photo by Gabriel Rodriguez/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – Customs and Border Protection officials are considering ways to waive polygraph exams for some job applicants as the agency works to meet President Donald Trump’s push to hire thousands more border agents.

The plan, one of several in an internal Department of Homeland Security document published Wednesday by the Washington Post, would address a longstanding problem with the tests that union officials and lawmakers say has chilled recruitment and needlessly stalled hiring of border agents.

But it would also relax a policy meant to curb a wave of corruption cases that CBP faced in its last hiring boom, a change that critics called “alarming” at a time when they said the agency should be increasing scrutiny of potential hires, not easing standards.

“I would think that vetting and the polygraph continues to be an essential part of the process,” Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said Thursday. “We’re going to put people with tremendous responsibility on the border, I don’t see why we would loosen any standards.”

He said that the planned drastic expansion of border agents means polygraphs are needed to weed out “problem applicants” and ensure Border Patrol hires good people.

Homeland Security officials would not comment on the authenticity of the document in the Post, which said the agency was looking at ways to waive polygraphs for applicants who had served in law enforcement or military and may already have gone through background examinations.

But some lawmakers, including Arizona Republican Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain, have proposed legislation that would do just that as part of a streamlined hiring process.

“At a time when Arizonans are rightfully demanding a secure border, it’s unjustifiable to be turning away qualified applicants with distinguished military and law enforcement service because of a potentially flawed polygraph,” Flake said at the bill’s introduction in March.

Union officials say the tests have been poorly administered in some cases, which has proved “problematic” for recruitment by subjecting some agents to bad experiences and turning away qualified applicants.

“We believe the polygraph is being administered not within the standards of how these examinations are typically administered,” said Hector Garza, president of National Border Patrol Council Local 2455 in Laredo, Texas. “If this continues and there’s no oversight on this type of polygraph, then I don’t think we’re ever going to meet the number of agents that we need.”

A CBP spokesman said in a statement this week that the polygraph exam had a fail rate of 65 percent for the agency as of July – what union officials said is more than double the rate of other federal agencies. That has lawmakers and union officials asking how the agency will hire the 5,000 new agents that Trump called for in January.

But immigration advocates worry that without strict vetting of applicants, “we can’t guarantee they’re qualified to do that job.” Abril Gallardo, a spokeswoman for Living United for Change in Arizona, said that taking away any layers in the hiring process increases the risk of anti-immigrant applicants becoming border agents.

“The fact that a company would not have a process to verify and make sure that individuals are capable of doing their jobs, it’s alarming,” Gallardo said.

The last time Border Patrol saw a hiring boom, multiple internal corruption cases led Congress to pass the Anti-Border Corruption Act in 2010, which required the lie-detector test for applicants.

CBP said in a statement Wednesday that the polygraph test is just one element of the application process it uses. The polygraph can reveal answers that applicants may not otherwise provide, including on questions of prior drug use, criminal activity and negligence, a CBP statement said.

But union officials said former applicants have told them “horror stories” about the polygraph, which some experts question altogether.

“This test does not detect lies,” said John Allen, a University of Arizona psychology professor who has written about the pitfalls of polygraphs.

He said the tests measure body signals associated with lying. But they may also show up when the subject is telling the truth, but is nervous or uncomfortable.

“It’s a useful way of getting people to confess to things,” Allen said. “It seems more like an interrogation tool than an actual truth detector.”

Garza said some applicants told him of polygraph exams lasting eight hours or more, during which they sometimes faced “verbal abuse” or false accusations. Some applicants have failed the CBP test but been hired by another company that uses a polygraph in hiring, he said.

“I just don’t think it’s accurate,” said Art Del Cueto, president of National Border Patrol Council Local 2544 in Tucson. “I think what it’s done is it’s created a crutch for the agency to justify hiring or not hiring individuals.”

But some proponents said there is value in the deterrent effect of a polygraph.

“People aren’t going to apply if they know there?s a polygraph exam,” said Laura Wells, who owns Wells Polygraph Services in Phoenix. She said that “initial deterrent” weeds out “undesirables” from the applicant pool, letting the agency focus on the good applicants.

Wells said CBP uses old procedures – the Law Enforcement Pre-Examination Test developed in 2002 – but that polygraphs are an effective screening measure when administered with modern techniques.

CBP is considering replacing the LEPET test, according to the document in the Post. In the meantime, Wells said, the agency should consider outsourcing the job to companies that specialize in the tests.

“All of us in Phoenix would love to take their overflow,” she said.